WASHINGTON -- At last week's regular luncheon of 49 Republican senators, John McCain entered early and took a seat at a table. Nobody even joined him. McCain seated alone reflected his colleagues' attitude toward the one U.S. senator with a national following.
It was an extraordinary week for McCain, climaxed by his unprecedented walk to the House side of the Capitol to take command of disorganized Republican campaign finance reformers in the other chamber. But earlier that week in Senate roll call votes, McCain suffered humiliating rejection on two of his signature issues: corporate welfare and congressional pork barrel spending.
John McCain is isolated in the Senate. Letting McCain sit by himself at the weekly luncheon may seem like a high school stunt, but it reflects what fellow Republican senators think of him. His newfound Democratic friends, led by Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, use McCain as frontman for their "patients' bill of rights" but are no more helpful to him than Republicans when it does not suit their purposes. Daschle and other Democratic leaders voted against both McCain proposals last week.
The stinging defeats constituted a personal rebuke to the senator on two of his most laudable enterprises: to increase defense spending at the cost of non-essential expenditures and to control the insatiable congressional appetite for pork. His proposed $847.8 million in additional defense spending this year, offset by cuts in non-defense items, was defeated 83 to 16. His attempted elimination of one symbolic Alabama pork project was beaten 87 to 12.
McCain's defense amendment would provide money for paying and training troops that the Pentagon plans to take out of its own critically important funding for readiness and modernization. McCain would finance this instead by cutting such corporate welfare as maritime subsidies, Export-Import Bank payments and steel industry loans. He also would strip $30 million from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah (which has cost the U.S. taxpayer $1.3 billion to date and counting).
The Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) offered no objection to McCain's proposal, but his fellow senators certainly did. The two princes of pork from the Appropriations Committee, Democrat Robert Byrd and Republican Ted Stevens, took the floor in opposition. So did a half-dozen other senators, including freshman Sen. Hillary Clinton. They are all for defense, but not at the expense of corporate welfare and the Winter Olympics. The 16 votes for McCain included two or three Republican friends who gave him a vote so that the outcome would not look too bad.
McCain's anti-pork amendment sought to eliminate from the Interior Department appropriations bill $3.5 million to refurbish the statue in Birmingham, Ala., of Vulcan, god of fire and iron -- an earmarked appropriation not requested by the administration.
McCain's staff has compiled 24 pages of unrequested, objectionable earmarks in the Interior bill alone. Included are such oddities as $350,000 for the Chicago Wilderness Program, $1 million for noxious weed management at Montana State University and $150,000 to rehabilitate a barn at the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire. As usual, Stevens loaded the bill with pork for his state of Alaska (such as $1.3 million for an Alaska Native American aviation training program).
Stripping funds from Vulcan was only symbolic. "At first blush," said McCain, "having the federal government give money to a Roman god may appear to violate the constitutional separation of church and state." Humor did not help. Alabama's two conservative Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, solemnly defended the statue as being "of great importance to the people of Alabama and the South" and the "pre-eminent symbol of Alabama." The Bush administration supports McCain's anti-pork campaign, but not very hard. The Vulcan amendment was opposed by the senator's new liberal Democratic friends and even Republicans still close to him.
"The system is that if you vote against my project," McCain explained to me on CNN last weekend, "then I'm going to cut out your project." His crusade against corporate welfare and congressional pork needs friends and allies. Instead, his colleagues dealt him two big defeats, and enjoyed doing it.